LGBTQ volunteers form Texas Local Disaster Recovery Squad.
By Lourdes Zavaleta
Buried in an East Downtown neighborhood, a red-brick house doubles as a nonprofit distribution site to help those impacted by Tropical Storm Harvey. Since late August, the volunteers stationed there have been reconstructing homes and delivering supplies to families who lost everything.
The Texas Local Disaster Recovery Squad (TXLDRS), which has dubbed itself the “lesbian mafia,” is dedicated to assisting those who received no federal aid after Harvey’s destruction. The squad’s story began with the rising floodwaters in Houston and two boats delivered by an LGBTQ activist from Dallas.
Like many others, Houston Fire Department captain Iris Rodriguez was at a viewing party for the boxing match between Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor on August 25 when Harvey began to drench Houston.
Rodriguez left the party at the home of her friend Melissa Vivanco early so she could be at her fire station the next day. After assisting with several rescues while on duty, she met up with Vivanco again, devastated. “It was terrible,” Rodriguez says. “I was exhausted, and I knew that we were going to have to work for about four years just like this to get Houston back to where it once was.”
Vivanco, a UPS worker and political activist, wanted to join her friend and help the city. She put together teams of women to help set up shelters and go out into the floodwaters to rescue people trapped in their homes. The women knew their rescue efforts would be more effective if they had boats. They took to Facebook, and within minutes a friend of Rodriguez’s told her that a woman in Dallas had two boats that would be dropped off in Houston.
Karen McCrocklin, an LGBTQ author and spokesperson, was over 200 miles away, witnessing Harvey’s destruction online. She learned about Rodriguez’s team through a mutual friend. After borrowing the boats from a friend, McCrocklin began planning the trip to Houston. Before she left, she asked her friends for supplies and created a GoFundMe page to accept donations. “I didn’t think she would actually come,” Rodriguez says. “Sure enough, the following morning, I got a call saying someone left two boats and supplies outside of the fire station. I had no idea who this lady was. I was like, ‘Who is this crazy woman?’”
After dropping off the boats at the station, McCrocklin drove all night to evacuate a friend to Austin before heading back to Dallas. She has continued to collect donations and make weekly trips to Houston to deliver them and work on reconstruction with TXLDRS. As of mid-September, her GoFundMe had raised over $25,000.
“I’m sure that they thought I was nuts,” McCrocklin says. “But I’m incredibly grateful that I have the time, the resources, and great friends from all over the world who have pitched in.
“I’m so fortunate to have been raised in a culture of people who care, and to have been involved in organizations that taught me how to make change effectively,” McCrocklin adds. “LGBTQ people know how to get things done.”
With the boats, TXLDRS headed toward northeast Houston. There, they rescued over 30 families, many of whom were living in one-story homes that had up to seven feet of water in them.
After the flooding cleared, the team went back to the same neighborhoods to start rebuilding. They went door-to-door to find elderly and disabled people who were unable to travel to distribution points for aid. Several of them were living in toxic environments, their walls and floors covered in mold and rot. To clear homes of water damage, they removed carpets, sheetrock, and sprayed mold retardant on the walls. Seven homes have been reconstructed by the team since mid-September.
Rodriguez says that the life experiences that all LGBTQ people share is what makes her team so willing to help Houstonians in need. “Caring for people is a part of our being,” Rodriguez explains. “It’s our fabric. We live this every single day, and we don’t know any differently.”
Vivanco says that the interconnectedness of the LGBTQ community has helped her and Rodriguez find volunteers and sponsors. “LGBT people are always activists,” Vivanco says. “So when it comes to getting supplies, we have contacts everywhere.”
Rodriguez says that the future of TXLDRS lies with the collaborations it is making with other organizations. The Houston Democratic Party has been referring volunteers and people with damaged homes to the group. The LIFE Association, a Texas-based not-for-profit organization, donated $5,000 in gift cards. Houston’s Pearl Bar and BakerRipley, the large community-development nonprofit, have also partnered with TXLDRS to help rebuild the headquarters of Sheltering Arms Senior Services.
TXLDRS has also set up a Facebook page for those who need assistance or want to help the group’s cause.
“What these women do is inspiring,” McCrocklin says. “They have built this great organization, and it all started with a Facebook post about a boat.”
This article appears in the October 2017 edition of OutSmart Magazine.